When Portland metro voters approved a $125 million bond measure to upgrade their zoo four years ago, the zoo's most-famous resident was 46 years old.
Last week, Packy turned 50, and he still is waiting for a better home. Yet, by the time the 2008 bond measure's proceeds provide Packy a bit more room to roam, the world-famous Asian elephant (the first born in U.S. captivity) will be pushing 53. And if he wants a lot more space to stretch his legs, he'll have to reach a ripe-old elephant age.
Creating more space for the Oregon Zoo's elephants was one of the emotional pulls for passage of the 2008 bond. Zoo administrators and supporters promised to increase the size of the zoo's onsite elephant habitat and also explore the possibility of finding property for a 100-plus acre elephant preserve in the metro area.
The good news is that after four years of planning, the zoo, which is managed by the Metro regional government, finally will break ground early next year on an expanded onsite elephant habitat. The process has taken longer than many members of the public expected or desired, but zoo administrators say the time was well spent in developing an on-campus medical facility and a master plan for the zoo that will guide future improvements.
The larger onsite elephant area likely will open in 2015, providing six acres for the herd on the eastern edge of the property. The bigger accommodations will offer elephants more comfort and a richer social life, but the onsite improvements still won't live up to the emerging standards for keeping elephants in captivity.
To be truly humane toward elephants, an offsite preserve in excess of 100 acres is needed so that these animals can be given freedom of movement beyond the confines of a zoo.
Wild elephants can roam up to 30 miles a day, which may be why captive pachyderms often suffer from fatal 'foot rot.' The residents of the Oregon Zoo have not been immune. Between 1996 and 2006, three elephants - Me-Tu, Belle (Packy's mother) and Pet - had to be euthanized following chronic foot ailments.
In addition, a remote elephant center would provide space for bulls to interact with one another, as well as with a female herd, in conditions similar to their natural setting.
The 2008 bond measure included $7.2 million to help establish a preserve. The Metro government has taken an option on the old Roslyn Lake property near Sandy. Metro and zoo officials are being cautious about the preserve because they want to know they have sufficient money to cover operating costs once they buy the land, currently owned by PGE. They also note that they'll need to clear land-use hurdles and work with the Oregon Zoo Foundation to raise additional dollars for the habitat.
We agree with their financial prudence, but also urge these officials to move with greater speed on the preserve. We recognize that a great deal of planning must go into a concept that's only been tried in a few places. But we also know that Metro is not known for speedy processes - in fact, just the opposite is undeniably the case.
Elephants live for a relatively long time, but neither the occupants of the zoo nor the region's voters should have to wait any longer than necessary for this more humane vision to be fulfilled.